Saturday, September 13, 2008

When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale - 240 pgs

Book CoverLawrence is a clever and lively nine year old boy with a penchant for astronomical trivia. He lives in England with his mother, 3 year old sister and his hamster Herman. Lawrence has a typical day to day life, fighting with his sister, speculating on his neighbors new kittens, and reading his favorite books. His mother though, is increasingly worried about his estranged father's malicious attempts at spying on the family and ruining her reputation among the neighbors, and decides it would be safer to relocate the family to Rome, where she lived before she met her husband. The trip is as troublesome as it is adventurous, and everyone looks forward to excitement and new situations. Once in Rome, "Mum's" friends seem glad to see her and offer help, but soon the family wears out their welcome. Struggling from place to place, Lawrence regales the reader with tales of unusual emperors and frightening popes, while trying to help and comfort a mother who is distraught and despondent. After finagling a place of her own for her family to live, it becomes clear that Mum's version of events regarding her husband do not reflect the reality of what has been going on. Lawrence, struggling to maintain an equilibrium in his world, must cope with the day to day life in a world where nothing is as it seems, and there is danger in very unsuspected places.

I was aware going into this book that there were spelling inconsistencies and that they book was told from the perspective of a child. I believe that the knowledge of this particular aspect of the book enabled me to accept it and disregard it more easily. I did notice that some words were spelled differently at different times, but it was not something that deflected my appreciation of the story. Though I easily saw Lawrence's mother's real conflict, the way the author handled the voice of Lawrence enabled me to see it from another perspective, one that highlighted the mystery and rationalization of a young boy in the face of unknown mental turmoil. Lawrence seemed both innocent and shrewd, not understanding the depth or gravity of his family's problem, but knowing that he had to be the man of the family and help his mother cope with the inevitable. At one point he mentions his responsibility as the only logical solution, for if he lets go, there will truly be no one who can cope. His staunch determination was staggeringly heartrending. At once scary and humbling, looking through Lawrence's eyes I saw the hopefulness and rationalizations of a child who is clearly in the dark, yet believes he can see everything clearly. It was an odd way of seeing things, at such an oblique angle, that I found it both entrancing and horrific. At times, it was so dreadfully uncomfortable to imagine life in this 9 year old mind, complicit yet not complicit, aware yet shielded by the very guilelessness of adolescence.

I thought this was an excellent book. The tale was unexpected, and told in such a way as to render it lively while still being very serious. In fact, I believe that the light manner of the narration did something to heighten the impact of the dramatic elements of the story. In this case it was not so much as an unreliable narrator as an inexperienced one, making sense of the story in the only capacity that he could. While things are stark for the reader, the main character remains in a state of innocence that effectively renders his inability to document an occurrence in the horrible worldly way we are familiar with, and in the end paints a picture of anguish in an elegant way. This is an unusual book, but one well worth the effort.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review! It really piqued my interest in the book.

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